When you reach the end of the hallway and step inside the big office, you begin to understand how it all happens. This is where the long, icy roads of New England end and big-time college basketball begins. The desk is wide enough for table tennis, and it doesn't take long to realize that you're looking across the net at the champ. The man can bring it like Forrest Gump. He doesn't actually speak. He opens fire. He hits you with a riveting assault of stories and snippets and fortune-cookie pearls of wisdom, and soon you're looking to sign that letter of intent.
Go out the door and into the gym, and you discover that you're not the first one to get swept up in all the energy. Bodies are flying. People are hitting the floor and sweating all over one another. This is practice? The players have been listening to this guy for three, four, five years, and still they hang on his words. Still he has a hold on them, which, from the first recruiting visit through the Final Four, is what the job is all about.
The success of a program is no surprise once you've sat in the big office of John Calipari at UMass or Jim Calhoun at UConn, two coaches who have energized one corner of the country.
"You've got to say one thing for John: I don't always agree with him, but he can coach," says Calhoun. "You just look at his team on TV and you can see how hard they play."
"I've had people come watch our practices and say, 'There's only one team I've seen that practices as hard as you guys, and that's UConn,' " says Calipari. "Jim Calhoun has rejuvenated that whole program, and now he's got them in the Top 10 almost every year. And that's what we're trying to do here at UMass."
Calipari has done something this season that Calhoun has yet to do at UConn. The Minutemen have gotten the No. 1 ranking in the polls. The best Calhoun has done is No. 2—once last season and again last week. UMass was 11-1 through Sunday. UConn was 12-0. Until this season a New England team had never been ranked first in the Associated Press poll, which began in 1949. (The UConn women also achieved a historic first, moving into the top spot in the AP poll after Monday's 77-66 win [page 83] over top-ranked Tennessee.) Up until this season the brightest moment in New England college basketball history probably came in 1947 when Holy Cross won the region's only NCAA title.
UMass and UConn are almost as close on the map as they are in the polls. And while there is no highway that cuts straight from Storrs, Conn., to Amherst, Mass., there is something else in between that adds a nice touch to the story: genuine tobacco farms. "Just like Duke and North Carolina," says Calhoun.
Only one difference: Duke and North Carolina play each other.
UConn and UMass first played in 1905, a 66-22 UMass victory. There is no winning coach listed in the media guide because there were no coaches, just players. Now it seems to be the other way around. Now Duke doesn't play Michigan. Some ex-coach TV announcer tells us that Coach K is taking on his pal Steve Fisher. As if they were going to play Parcheesi at center court. Now, of course, coaches have complete control.
UConn and UMass played 98 times until the rivalry was discontinued five years ago. Even after UConn joined the Big East in 1979 and UMass became part of the Atlantic-10 in '82, the two teams continued to play—although the Huskies dominated, winning 13 of the last 14, including two meetings between Calhoun and Calipari.
Still, it was the UConn coach who scrapped the matchup. Calhoun says he wanted the 1989 UMass-UConn game moved out of the small, suffocating Curry Hicks Cage on the UMass campus and into the larger, more visitor-friendly Springfield Civic Center. "We were playing all our [home] games in arenas, not on campus," he says. When Calipari refused to move, Calhoun called a halt to the series. It wasn't a big deal then. It is now.
"We'll play them in Hartford if they give us half the tickets," says Calipari. "We'll play them in the middle of Route 91. It's up to UConn."
The teams could conceivably renew the rivalry in the next year or two, but first Calhoun and Calipari would have to agree. The general feeling among fans is that either coach would sooner stick his hand down a garbage disposal. They are proud, stubborn, slightly obsessed men. Calhoun is the irascible veteran, 52 years old and still every bit the hard-edged Irish kid from Boston. Calipari, 35, is the brash young Italian, a Rick Pitino protègè, sitting defiantly at No. 1. Each has done a brilliant job, and neither wants to lose in his own neighborhood. There are a lot of reasons these two teams should meet, and this time the matchup between the coaches is one of them.
Calhoun enjoys his life immensely, but he still never stops growling like an old dog. Something is always wrong, someone is always out to get him. There are 14 daily newspapers covering his team, and he gives the impression that he reads every one of them. Not only does he listen to talk shows, but he actually admits it.
He started off as a high school coach and put in 14 years at Northeastern before landing the job at UConn in 1986. Calhoun has since taken his team to the NCAA tournament four times and the Sweet 16 three times. He has joined the elite circle of coaches who no longer have to worry about having a job and a paycheck. He worries anyway.
"When I came, I said we were going to do things right, with good kids, good people, by the rules," says Calhoun. "It's a long-term proposition to become a Duke, a North Carolina, an Indiana. To be one of those folks who always wins, you've got to pay your dues."
When he was at Northeastern, Calhoun used to run the Boston Marathon. He is 6'5" and weighs 220, but he says he once ran a 3:10. Be warned: He has great wind.
"It was written someplace that the best job of coaching in the country in the last 15 years was done right here," says Calhoun. "Now, what Bob Huggins did at Cincinnati and what John did at UMass was obviously outstanding. But Cincinnati had won in the past, and John did it in the Atlantic-10. He went through John Chaney to build that program. He didn't go through Rollie Massimino and John Thompson and Lou Carnesecca and Jim Boeheim. These are guys who are all going to be in the Hall of Fame."
Calipari was 29 when UMass offered him the job in 1988. He says he didn't actually want the position, he just wanted to get his name out there. Why would he want to go to UMass? He was a well-connected, wired-in assistant coach at Pitt. "I honestly didn't want the job," he says. "But then I came up here, and it was like, 'Wow, nice campus.' Then they started talking about the commitment they were going to make and the building they were going to build. I got all juiced up and said, 'Wow, this could happen here.' "
It has happened in Amherst more dramatically than anyone thought possible. The team moved into the 9,493-seat Mullins Center two years ago, and the Minutemen haven't lost a game there yet. They have won 24 straight in their new building, including last Saturday's 93-60 demolition of then No. 21 Penn. UConn, meanwhile, had won 23 straight at home through Sunday. On both campuses, it's easier to find a palm tree than a ticket to a basketball game.
For two coaches who possess the same drive and work the same turf, the competition on the court is nothing compared with the battles off it. They compete for the same can't-miss recruits and the same encomium: builder of the best program in New England. When Calhoun arrived in Storrs, UConn was coming off four straight losing seasons. The Huskies have finished in the Top 5 in the AP poll twice in the last five years. When Calipari arrived in Amherst, the basketball team had endured 10 straight losing seasons, and no one seemed to care. "I remember when it was bad to win," says Jack Leaman, who coached the Minutemen from 1966 to '79 and now serves as their radio analyst. "If you won too much, the administration thought you were putting too much emphasis on athletics."
The Minutemen are on their way to their fourth straight A-10 title and NCAA tournament appearance. They have two potential NBA lottery picks in sophomore center Marcus Camby and senior forward Lou Roe. That Calipari is now in his seventh year at UMass is probably the biggest upset of all. Most people thought he would stay only long enough to get a better offer. "Why should he leave?" says Calhoun, smiling. "He makes more money than I do."
There is only one thing UConn fans hate to see more than Calipari's TV show, and that is the long, thin arm of Marcus Camby reaching to the rafters to swat away a shot. Camby grew up a short walk from the Hartford Civic Center. He once waited outside the building to get former Husky Cliff Robinson's autograph. He was recruited by hundreds of schools, but he wanted to stay close to home. A lot of people thought that meant UConn.
Calipari says his top assistant, Bill Bayno, saw Camby in a Boys Club game in Hartford when Camby was a junior. Bayno returned to the office with his report: 6'11", long arms, quick as a moth, plays like Bill Russell, could change the program forever.
"Bayno says Marcus is going to be at this camp in California," says Calipari. "So I go out there and see this long skinny cat, blocking shots, dunking on everyone. I said to Bill, 'I'll kill you. Why didn't you tell him not to come here? Now everyone's going to be after him.' "
Despite a full-scale recruiting war, Camby chose UMass, and he turned into quite a prize. He is a coach's dream: an athletic 7-footer who changes games just by getting back on defense. He blocked 105 shots last season.
As for the Connecticut faithful, they adopted a familiar refrain the minute Camby opted for Amherst: We couldn't have gotten him into school at UConn anyway. Camby insists he could have been accepted to any college that offered him a scholarship. "After I signed at UMass, I heard a lot of criticism from UConn people about how they couldn't get me in," says Camby. "It really got me upset, because let me tell you: They wanted me. I don't care what anyone says."
Camby played a leading role in an embarrassing episode in October when some of the players' grade-point averages were reported in The Boston Globe. The paper revealed that four of the 13 UMass scholarship players were on academic probation and three others had received warnings because their grades had fallen below 2.0 for the semester. Since the story appeared, the UMass players have been heckled by opposing crowds. During an overtime win at St. Bonaventure last week, the Minutemen heard chants of "You can't read."
Calipari says that his team's grade-point average for the past four years is 2.5 and that last semester it was 2.8. Some players were upset when their grades were reported by the Globe last fall, but they wouldn't mind seeing the paper do it again. "I got a 3.2," says Camby. "You can quote me."
If UConn had grabbed Camby two years ago, the Huskies would have been silly-good by now. As it is, they lost the best player in the school's history last year when junior Donyell Marshall was taken No. 4 in the draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves, and still, here they are, unbeaten and near the top again. In fact they have sent five players to the NBA in the past six seasons, and there has always been someone else to step in. That is the UConn way.
"That's what attracted me to UConn," says senior forward Donny Marshall, who is no relation to Donyell. "They don't ever have just one star or one big guy. It's just a bunch of guys playing hard."
Calhoun may not get the best players coming out of Hartford, but he has no trouble convincing recruits from around the globe to spend four years in Storrs. Donny Marshall is from the state of Washington; starting center Travis Knight is from Utah; guard Doron Sheffer came over from Israel. Among the regulars, sophomore forward Ray Allen has the shortest commute. He's from South Carolina. He's also the emerging superstar who will keep the Storrs-to-the-NBA shuttle going.
"When Cliff Robinson left school, someone wrote that Jim Calhoun should ride this horse out of town," says Calhoun. "Then came Tate George, then Chris Smith, then Scott Burrell, then Donyell and now Ray Allen. We'll be all right."
They'll be all right as long as the fire is burning in the big office at the end of the hall. That is the common thread, the thing that takes a team to the top and keeps it there, from year to year, from Duke to Carolina, and from Storrs to Amherst.